Judith Butler’s careful consideration of trans individuals in relation to her theory of gender as an “act” brings me to the case of Janet Mock, a prominent trans woman who has garnered renown for her revealing, enlightening autobiography Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (though I must add that she is acclaimed for being a distinguished journalist in her own right, before her autobiography was released). In considering Mock, we must consider Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s views on “male homosocial desire”, which she says is “the radically disrupted continuum in our society between sexual and nonsexual male bonds” (709). The radical disruption that Sedgwick speaks of is caused by homophobia, as individuals engage in it to disrupt male bonds and maintain a patriarchy governed by heterosexual men. We must also consider Judith Butler’s main argument, the crux of which is this: “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed” (907). Gender is, according to Butler, an “act” (908). One is not merely a man or a woman but acts as either role to define their own gender. Mock’s experience as a trans woman reinforces Butler’s theory of gender through performance and appearance, and counters Sedgwick’s beliefs concerning the use of homophobia against strictly “male homosocial behavior”, as she finds her own ways to act as a woman and must fight against homophobia in her efforts to engage in female homosocial behavior.
Butler’s theory brings forward interesting intricacies concerning trans individuals, and she recognizes this: “Indeed, the transvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations” (907). Mock, for a long period of time, struggled to fully express her trans identity and find the best, most complete way to “act” her gender. This is best exemplified by her initial forays into the dating world, when she was dealing with the fine line concerning her appearance and the truth that she was attempting to conceal. In her autobiography, Mock details her first date with Adrian, a man whose “lustful gaze… further validated my womanhood” (158). The date was a nervous affair for Mock, at least initially: “But as dinner progressed, my nerves subsided, and I fell into the groove of a girl on a date with a guy” (158). Therefore, we can see that “acting” a gender has much to do with environment and company. The quality of these conditions determine how the individual can best express their gender. This is reinforced by the fact that Mock’s definition of womanhood is derived from “watching the women in Dad’s life cook and cackle in the kitchen” (65).
As Mock’s life goes on, she embraces more apparent ways of expressing her movement across genders, as she starts a hormone treatment and begins dressing in a more feminine manner. She practically outright supports Butler’s theory concerning the importance of “acting” a gender, especially through her appearance: “I clutched tightly to my green Keroppi folders and my size-too-small jeans and my arched brows, and when I could grow my hair long enough, my side part. These elements, though small and insignificant to passersby, made up my girlhood, and I fought hard to ensure that they were seen” (124).
Mock’s emergence and eventual coming to comfort and normality as a woman was undermined by homophobia. Sedgwick argues that homophobia is used to balance and combat the “male homosocial desire”. In Mock’s case, however, she encounters homophobia in her efforts to engage with the “female homosocial desire”, as she wants to be a woman among women (709). This struggle is compounded by Mock’s father’s initial reaction to her exploring her gender identity, as he abandons his daughter and dismisses her life journey, saying that he would not support it. (He eventually comes around to reaffirm his unconditional love for Mock). Mock’s experience with her father speaks volumes of Sedgwick’s belief that “patriarchies structurally include homophobia”, if we are considering her father as a one-man patriarchy (698). How do you think Mock herself would interpret Sedgwick’s key theory concerning homophobia’s role against homosocial desire? She would obviously read Sedgwick’s work with great intrigue, to say the least.
Mock would read Butler’s work with intrigue, too. “My point is simply that one way in which this system of compulsory heterosexuality is reproduced and concealed is through the cultivation of bodies into discrete sexes with ‘natural’ appearances and ‘natural’ heterosexual dispositions,” Butler writes (905). Mock agrees with Butler’s statement here, as she has felt automatically maligned by greater society for changing her bodies from its “natural” appearances to fulfill her non-heterosexual (and therefore non-“natural”) sexual desires. “It was a balancing act to express my femininity in a world that is hostile toward it and frames femininity as artifice and fake, in opposition to masculinity, which often represents ‘realness,’” Mock writes (124). What it would take for trans individuals to have their bodies and sexualities be defined as ‘natural’? Will it take a formal deconstruction of the word ‘natural’, or what it means?